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How lawyers with high-profile clients approach jury selection

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED JURY FOREPERSON #1: We, the jury, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of...

UNIDENTIFIED JURY FOREPERSON #2: We, the jury, in the above entitled matter as to count one, find the defendant guilty.

UNIDENTIFIED JURY FOREPERSON #3: As to the charge of first-degree murder, we, the jury, find the defendant not guilty.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Those are the verdicts from the O.J. Simpson, Derek Chauvin and Casey Anthony murder trials. All three cases, in different ways, captivated the country. Millions of people watched the trials unfold, and millions tuned in as a jury of the defendant's peers decided their fate. Tomorrow marks the beginning of another case that is sure to grab the nation's attention because the defendant is one of the most famous people in the world, former President Donald Trump. Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying records related to checks used to pay adult film star Stormy Daniels. But before we can hear opening arguments, lawyers for both sides get to select the jury.

ADAM SHLAHET: You're trying to get rid of the jurors who will ruin your case and will not be receptive to your arguments.

DETROW: That's jury expert Adam Shlahet. He's a professor at Fordham Law School. On Monday, hundreds of New Yorkers will file into a Manhattan courtroom. They'll fill out a questionnaire that asks typical questions like, what do you do for a living? What's your educational background? And they'll answer more case-specific questions like, have you volunteered for the Trump campaign? Have you attended a Trump rally? Or have you attended an anti-Trump rally or ever volunteered for an anti-Trump group? But some questions are off the table.

SHLAHET: The judge has not allowed those explicit questions about people's political views, but he also acknowledges that one's political views can be pretty easily gleaned from whether you listen to this radio station or that radio station, watch MSNBC or Fox News.

DETROW: Each side does get 10 peremptory challenges that could strike potential jurors from the list. And the judge can also strike any juror he feels wouldn't be a good fit. But one thing that may surprise you about the process...

SHLAHET: As long as you can be fair and you can assure the court that you can be fair, liking or not liking Donald Trump does not disqualify you from being on this jury.

DETROW: And that's unusual. In a typical case, if a potential juror voices a negative opinion about the defendant, they'd be dismissed.

SHLAHET: But in this case - because everybody knows the defendant, and everybody has an opinion about the defendant, and everyone's heard the defendant speak - that in and of itself is not a disqualification because then you'd be left with nobody.

DETROW: And that's maybe the biggest challenge facing Trump's legal team.

SHLAHET: I think there's a real and legitimate fear that someone will say, I can be totally fair; I have no strong feelings about Donald Trump. You're really looking for the people who may be lying and undercover trying to convict your client.

DETROW: Attorney Camille Vasquez has been in a somewhat similar position. In 2022, she represented actor Johnny Depp in a defamation case he brought against his ex-wife, Amber Heard. It does need to be said that Johnny Depp's case and Donald Trump's cases are very, very different. One of the many key distinctions is that Trump's is a criminal trial and Depp's was a civil trial. These are both cases centering around extremely famous men. There's a lot of media attention in both of them. And amid all of that, you have to select an impartial jury. So I started by asking Vasquez how she and her team approached jury selection for the Depp case, given that situation.

CAMILLE VASQUEZ: We went about it by first and foremost hiring a jury consultant, and I think that was instrumental in helping us narrow the perfect juror that we were looking for and the ones that we really didn't want on our jury, and helping us identify some of the characteristics that each of those potential jurors would exhibit.

DETROW: Can you just tell us a little more about what a juror consultant does? Is this coming up with a hypothetical ideal juror or is this somebody who's with you looking at the jury pool and trying to get a sense of what these jurors are like as they come through?

VASQUEZ: They can do both jobs. In our case, she was not only present while we were selecting the jury, but she also did a lot of research and strategized with us about the type of jurors that we were looking for, the ones that we were not looking for.

DETROW: Can you tell us just a general sense of the types that you were looking for in your particular case?

VASQUEZ: The analogy I like to use is like the perfect dinner guests. So you're going to have different people. You're going to have someone that's going to be the leader, and you're going to have people that are followers. And you need to have the right balance of that. So the leaders that we were looking for were going to be open-minded. They weren't going to know much about the story between our client and Miss Heard. They obviously would have known who Johnny Depp was, but we weren't necessarily looking for big fans of Johnny Depp.

DETROW: That is a lot of different characteristics that you're looking for.

VASQUEZ: It is.

DETROW: So then you get to the selection process. You have this big room full of potential jurors. Everyone fills out a questionnaire. They're brought before the judge and lawyers to answer questions about that questionnaire. How do you get all of those characteristics from the information you have in front of you?

VASQUEZ: So we've pre-identified certain people in the pool. But you're right. It's a big room of over 100 people. And it is completely luck of the draw. So the first 16 get filled into the jury box. And then the process starts where you have questions. And then it's my job as the lawyer for Mr. Depp to be able to establish a rapport with the individual potential jurors, and it's really the first impression that they're going to get of you, of your client and the case.

So it's about establishing rapport and getting them to open up because it's an uncomfortable process where you have everyone looking at you, and you have people taking notes. You want them to talk about things that will show you - do they know a lot about the case? Do they really want to be on this jury? Are they trying to hide that? Or do they want nothing to do with this, and they're just desperately trying to get out of jury duty? Those are all the things that we try to identify by building a rapport.

DETROW: I'm trying to understand because I think, you know, bias going into the case, preformed opinions going into the case is going to be pretty central to a Donald Trump jury. I think it's fair to say.

VASQUEZ: Absolutely.

DETROW: What were the kind of questions that you asked, and what were the kind of things you were looking for to get a sense in your case, of - is this a juror who knows a lot about Johnny Depp; is this a juror who knows a lot about the backstory here?

VASQUEZ: Open-ended questions - it was getting them to talk because we knew if they spoke and they gave us details that really only diehard fans would know, or people that really had studied the case, then we would have an indication as to whether or not this person was somebody that was following closely or not.

DETROW: If you were working on the Trump defense team, how much would you focus on politics versus other broader factors?

VASQUEZ: I probably would focus on politics. I wouldn't say it's the only thing I would focus on, but I think because of who he is, the former president, the Republican nominee, it's an important factor that you have to know. And you are in a liberal state in New York. So obviously, you're going to assume that a lot of the political leanings of the potential jurors are going to be more liberal. I think you have to understand, though, whether or not their political leanings are going to affect their ability to listen to evidence in an impartial way and really be open-minded.

DETROW: How often are you and other lawyers trying to get a sense of how a trial is playing with a jury as it goes on? What are you looking for day to day in the trial in terms of - is this working; are we making our case; are we struggling?

VASQUEZ: I mean, it's an everyday, every moment process. As trial lawyers, even if it's not me, myself, that's looking at the jury, we always have somebody that's looking at the jury trying to see what's affecting them and in what manner it's affecting them. It's crucially important to try to understand. And there was a moment during my cross-examination of Miss Heard where I had two jurors actually physically turn away from her and just lean their bodies towards me. And I thought to myself, I had them in that moment. And as a trial lawyer during cross-examination, you want that. You want the jury paying attention to your questions because you are telling the story through your questions during cross-examination. You don't want them paying attention to the witness and, you know, hanging off every word.

DETROW: We talked before about politics being, you know, a high-profile factor here. What else would you want to know about the jury for a case like this Trump case that is going forward? And what else would you have the biggest questions about as the case progressed?

VASQUEZ: I think one of the biggest questions I would have besides politics is how much they know about the other Trump trials, whether it's civil or criminal, because I do think that will actually be an even bigger problem for the Trump defense team to contend with. And the reason I say that is because the more litigation that a claimant or a plaintiff or defendant is involved in, there's just a stigma that attaches. And so if the potential juror has been really closely following every single legal case, I do think that could be problematic potentially for the defense.

DETROW: Do you think this is an easy case or a hard case for a jury? - because on one hand, it's extramarital affairs and payoffs, seems relatively straightforward to grasp. On the other hand, it's campaign finance and business filings, which is pretty complicated.

VASQUEZ: It is complicated. I don't think it's an easy case for a jury to deal with. It's just not going to be. The implications of their decision are huge, and they know that. So it's not an easy case. But I hope that they find a jury for both sides - right? - that is impartial and will listen to admissible evidence in an open-minded way so that they can come to the right decision because that's what the justice system is all about, is arriving at the right decision without influences that really have no place in a court of law.

DETROW: That's attorney Camille Vasquez, a partner at Brown Rudnick law firm and the lawyer for Johnny Depp in that defamation case against Amber Heard. Thank you so much.

VASQUEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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